Monday, July 29, 2013

What the Hell?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            If you were in worship last Sunday, you heard me preach about Colossians 1:15-20 where the Apostle Paul declares, "and through [Jesus Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. . ." The thrust of my sermon was about how we, the church, play a part in God's reconciliation and how it is necessary we work for racial reconciliation in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman trial. Yet, I also touched on a number of other deep theological and scriptural issues such as the method of God's salvation (does God really need a bloody sacrifice in order to forgive us?) and the nature of eternal life (does God desire to reconcile everyone and everything or just some?). Both deserve more attention, but I thought I'd take on a part of the latter question by talking about Hell in this week's column.
            When I teach a college class on the Bible, I try to illustrate how the theological thinking present in our Bible evolved chronologically through history. Rather than being a book written by a single author at one time and place, we have a library of writings written by authors who lived in different cultures, wrote in different languages, existed in different centuries and who were influenced by various other cultures and religions. A survey of different passages dealing with life after death reveals a surprising variety of ideas.
            The earliest writings in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians often call the Old Testament) have no idea of life after death; when you die that's all folks. There are a few people like Enoch and Elijah who are taken up to heaven, but everybody else just dies. Texts from a few centuries later speak of "Sheol" as the abode of the dead where the dead exist as mere shadows of their mortal selves. In the New Testament or Christian Scriptures, this idea continues and takes the name "Hades" from Greek thought. It is not until the second century B.C.E. that we get the first mention of a postmortem reward for righteous acts; that occurs in the apocalyptic book of Daniel, but that reward is given to the few who resist persecution on behalf of their faith. It is not until the first century C.E., around the time of Jesus, that the Jewish writing Wisdom of Solomon (present in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not Protestant ones) speaks of the "soul" being eternal. Wisdom of Solomon is an outlier, however, because if Jews in the time of Jesus believed in life after death (many did not) they believed in a general resurrection of the dead that would happen sometime in the future. In other words, you were dead until God raised everyone to receive God's judgment.
            Jesus' teachings in the Gospels, Paul's writings and other writings of the early church do not speak uni-vocally about Hell either. Jesus speaks of a final judgment with those who are unworthy of reward being sent to the "outer darkness" where there is "wailing and gnashing of teeth." He also speaks of "Hades" and "Gehenna," the trash dump outside Jerusalem. Yet, these images are vague rather than concrete. Paul speaks of a general resurrection of the dead and the defeat of evil and the Devil, but what exactly the "wrath" of God looks like for those who will be judged negatively remains elusive. Other early Christian writers are similarly vague, and don't get me started about the confusing imagery of Revelation.
            It is not until the second century C.E. that Christians develop a more concrete understanding of eternal punishment-a picture that looks a lot like Greek conceptions of the dead being tormented in the Underworld (think Homer's The Odyssey). Most of our contemporary images of Hell have more to do with Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost than they have to do with scripture and church teaching. (People of my generation, I'm convinced, have a concept of Hell based on the Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoons.)
There are a number of good books out there on the history of Hell that are worth a read, but for a good discussion of the scriptural passages in question, I like to recommend Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell, an evangelical minister, who resigned from his Michigan mega-church after he wrote the book due to backlash, takes the Bible on its own terms and very seriously combs through the passages pointing out their incongruities. Bell may be saying something new to Evangelicals, but his thoughts have been commonplace among mainline Christians for over a century or more. Yet, what Bell shows conclusively (for those who bother to read him before condemning him) is that contemporary readers often read their conceptions of Hell back into the text rather than gaining their picture of Hell from the Bible.

Most importantly, Bell also does a good job of pointing out the inconsistencies of many Christians in their understanding of what kind of God sends people to Hell. What kind of loving Father stands ready to love us for eternity unless, of course, we run out of time in this life to accept God's love? Does God say to us, "I'm sorry, but it's too late. If only you'd been here earlier, you'd get to go to heaven?" What kind of God is it that says God loves us on the one hand but gladly sends billions to eternal torment on the other? Bell's questions go on. They are good questions. When pastors ask good questions in some churches, they lose their jobs.

Consider this a brief introduction to Hell as well as a recommendation for your further reading. In this column, I didn't get around to describing my own thoughts about Hell (or the lack thereof), but that will have to wait for another occasion.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Letter to African American Churches

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

 A Letter to African American Churches

This week my heart has been quite heavy as I have reflected on the death of Trayvon Martin and the results of the George Zimmerman trial.  As the father of two brown-skinned sons not yet in their teens, I can't stop thinking about what if it were my son?  I have been saddened by the many white-skinned people who fail to see the dynamics of race in these circumstances.  I have hurt for African-Americans who's anger and fear is compounded by their experience of not being heard.  I am frustrated by laws that justify the use of deadly force in a cavalier manner and handicap law enforcement from keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.  As a minister, I have felt the need to do something proactive to build bridges of communication in the midst of all this mess.

So, I decided to write a letter.  One of the joys of being here at CCCUCC is being a part of MORE2, an organization where White and African-American ministers strive to build relationships with one another as we together work for justice in Kansas City.  I felt my letter should come from our church to the African-American churches we are related to through MORE2.

The letter I wrote is below.  I shared it with members of General Council who supported it and offered some really helpful feedback.  One of their suggestions was for us to print it in Sunday's bulletin and to invite church members to sign on to it if they are comfortable doing so.  Sunday this letter will be in the bulletin and then during coffee time following worship you can sign on to the letter.

Writing this letter for more than myself was a difficult task.  I struggled to fairly represent our congregation.  In a case like the death of Trayvon Martin, there are many different issues that come to mind.  Also, in a church like ours where we prize diversity of belief and freedom of opinion, there is no way I could really frame this letter the way each church member would prefer to do if she or he were writing it.  If some of the language is not exactly how you feel or what you would like to communicate, then I want you to know that I respect and value your perspective.  However, my intention with this letter was to express concern for and solidarity with the African-American community and most of all to express our desire to listen to their experience.  IF that basic sentiment aligns with the flow of the Spirit inside of you, then I hope you will sign the letter on Sunday.

Grace and Peace,

You can read more thoughts from Chase on his blog:
and follow him on Twitter @ChasePeeples1.     

Dear Pastor,

We, the undersigned members of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ, write to you in order to express our pain and sadness over the death of Trayvon Martin and the outcome of the trial of George Zimmerman.  We felt it was important at this difficult time to express our solidarity with your congregation and other African-American congregations with whom we are connected through MORE2.  Although our culture may generally be divided along racial lines in its response to these incidents, we want you to know that we stand with you in denouncing efforts to minimize the tragedy of the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager.

Our church is a largely Caucasian congregation, so we want you to know that the white members of our congregation do not make any claim to know what it is like to be on the receiving end of our nation’s long and sorrowful history of racism, but as your sisters and brothers in Christ, we can declare our opposition to racism in all its forms.  We also recognize our participation in the systemic racism of our society and offer our repentance.  Our  white members, along with our black and brown ones, join together in reaching out to you. 

We do not intend to offer empty words, but rather we offer our ears to listen to the African-American experience at this time in history.  We extend our hearts as we learn from you and change.  We extend our arms to embrace one another.  We contribute our voices to speak out on behalf of those who do not have a voice in our society.  We make these offers of ourselves with humility knowing that we have much to learn from you.

We pledge to stand with you and your congregation as we work alongside you to overcome obstacles to achieve God’s justice for all people.  Our churches may be on different sides of Troost Avenue, but we share the same city.  We may have different experiences of racism, but we follow the same Jesus Christ who experienced an unjust legal system, beatings and execution.  We may have many differences, but we worship the same God who longs for people of faith to join together to create a society—as Martin Luther King, Jr. said-- in which all our children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

We stand with you in the love of God and wish to support you any way we can.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Chase Peeples and the members of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thinking about Feminist Theology

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            I write these weekly e-mails for a lot of reasons.  One of those reasons is because we don’t have much of a spiritual education ministry happening at our church.  The small numbers of CCCUCC folks involved in regular study and discussion of their faith remains a weakness of our church.  So when I’m not addressing something particular about our church, I try to throw in some stuff for you to consider about your faith amid the many other ideas you consume through various media in a given week.  Reading my e-mails is a poor substitute for being in a regular group where one grows in her or his faith, but I figure it’s better than nothing.
            Related to this issue of church folks growing in their faith, I was a part of a conversation involving some UCC clergy this week where some were bemoaning the fact that despite the many exciting things happening among religion scholars over the last several decades, ministers share very little, if any, of that information with their church members.  Most church folks operate with a theology that they acquired as children, perhaps modified enough so it’s not discarded in the face of adult experience, and it’s not entirely their fault for doing so.  Their ministers must also bear responsibility for acquiring a theological education but sharing little of it with the people they are charged with leading. 
            It seems both clergy and laity have much to answer for in terms of shallow religious faith.  My weekly e-mails don’t absolve me of my own responsibility as pastor, but they are one of the ways I hope to help you be better-educated Christians.  This week, let me briefly touch on feminist theology.
            Susan Thistlethwaite is one of the UCC’s top feminist theologians.  She teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary (a UCC school) and is its former president.  In the seminary’s latest newsletter, Thistlewaite takes a look at “Second Wave Feminism at 50,” specifically the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique.  Generally, feminism as an ideological and philosophical movement in America is divided into three stages or “waves.”  The first wave of feminism was the suffragist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The second wave took place around the time of Friedan’s book, post WWII when many Caucasian women achieved college education and middle class incomes yet had little say over their own lives.  The third wave of feminism has taken off over the last 25 years as an attempt to include the voices of women beyond those of the Caucasian middle class.  In theological circles, as Thistlethwaite notes, feminist theologians generally fall into these three waves.
            The Suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, saw the Bible and its interpretation as a key source of the oppression of women, so they set about to reinterpret the Bible for the benefit of women.  Second wave feminist theologians sought to deconstruct patriarchy, the systematic valuing of men as different from and superior to women, in all aspects of society: law, cultural practices, language, psychological constructs, religious beliefs, etc.  Third wave feminist theologians have sought to include the voices of women of color, women of non-European descent, poor women, lesbians and transgender women.  Each successive wave of feminist theology has pushed at the boundaries of what it means to be Christian, what we mean when we talk about God and what ways do our religious practices harm and oppress?
            What feminist theologians have written over the last 150 years matters a great deal for the local church, yet their work is largely absent from church.  I would argue that churches remain largely bastions of patriarchy, and the shifts within churches to allow women a greater if not equal role in religious life has more to do with our changing culture than our changing understanding of God.  It is a tragedy that Christianity in America remains largely an oppressor of women rather than a force freeing women from oppression.  Feminist theology offers us a way to be a different Christianity.
            Some men (and some women) will scoff at the idea of feminist theology and label it mere political correctness.  Yet, the gendered way we think about God affects to a great degree the way we think about men and women.  Mary Daly laid the issue out succinctly when she wrote, “If God is male, then male is God.”  If God is understood to be male and only males are truly in the image of God, then women are necessarily other than and less than men.  In most Christian denominations, women cannot be ordained as clergy, because this understanding of God’s maleness colors the interpretation of the Bible regarding church leadership.. 
Furthermore, male experience (heterosexual male experience that is) becomes the norm for understanding human experience including theology.  Here’s an example from feminist theologian Rebecca Chopp’s excellent article on feminist theology.  In 1960, a scholar named Valerie Saiving criticized contemporary male theologians, including Reinhold Niebuhr and others, for “identifying sin universally with self-assertion and love with selflessness.”  Saiving argued that this might be true of men’s experience but not for women.  Women often were and still are forced to subordinate their own needs and desires to that of men, yet this selflessness is not the result of love but rather oppression.  Similarly, women are often criticized when they assert themselves for equal pay or treatment-is that sinful?   (For another even more contemporary example of why feminist theology matters, take a look at Susan Thistlethwaite's Washington Post article after Mitt Romney made his infamous “binders full of women” remark during the presidential debates last fall.)
What feminist theologians have been writing for the last 150 years is of vital importance for the church today.  Younger generations are leaving organized religion in droves, because they see religion-especially Christianity-as oppressive of women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, etc.  They are right!  By engaging with the work of feminist theologians, we broaden our understanding of God and our understanding of how God works through humanity.  Also, we tell our daughters and granddaughters who are leaving the church that they too are made in the image of God and their voices are honored in the church.        
Grace and Peace,

You can read more thoughts from Chase on his blog: and follow him on Twitter @ChasePeeples1.    

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Politics of Jesus

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            I believe that if you asked most Americans what does Jesus have to do with politics you would receive one of two answers: everything or nothing.  Those who declared Jesus has “everything” to do with politics would most likely subscribe to the so-called “Religious Right” and would say Jesus as the Son of God and the Bible as the Word of God instruct us how to live.  Proper living would include opposition to abortion and probably birth control, opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage, opposition to pornography and sexual imagery in popular media, along with a commitment to laissez faire capitalism, limited government, gun rights and a strong military.  Those who stated Jesus has “nothing” to do with politics  may be simply reacting negatively against the Religious Right, but many truly take a position that religion is a private concern and not appropriate for public issues of governance.  This latter group would most likely find their grounding for a “common good” in a secular understanding of individual and community “rights” rather than in anything particular religious understanding of society.  I feel sure there are other answers to the question besides these two—my own for instance—but as far as I can see these two responses are the most common.
            From my perspective, the response of “nothing” is inadequate, because as a Christian I believe Jesus has to fit in there somewhere.  On the other hand, the response of the Religious Right, in my opinion, merely uses Jesus to promote a particular ideology that oppresses women, views sexuality in only negative terms and justifies violence.  One view doesn’t really care about Jesus, and the other view merely uses Jesus in order to control others. 
            For people of faith who do not identify themselves with the Religious Right, the choice seems obvious; better to have a secular view of politics that at least works for a “common good” than a theocracy.  This point of view among moderate to liberal Christians has been helped along by some movements within the academic study of Christian Ethics.  I can remember being surprised in graduate school when I heard one of the doctoral candidates in Christian Ethics declare that Jesus’ teachings were all geared towards an imminent end of the world and since that didn’t happen Jesus’ ethical teachings aren’t suited for the real world. I don’t really know how widespread this view is in the academic world, but I suspect among left-leaning Christians some form of it is common.  In other words, the Golden Rule is a nice way to live, but Jesus’ call to nonviolence and sacrifice on behalf of the poor is just not suited for the real world.  Thus, most mainline churches preach an ethic of congeniality rather than one that demands much of their members.     
            Trying to figure out what Jesus has to do with politics is all the more difficult, because Jesus doesn’t explicitly say much about them.  Jesus didn’t speak about government or laws, so any discussion of Jesus and politics necessarily involves interpreting Jesus’ teachings and actions in light of politics in our time.  If we can admit the fact that our efforts to apply Jesus’ ministry two thousand years ago to our current political situation are possibly wrong, then we can honestly and humbly try to say something about what Jesus has to do with politics—something other than Jesus hates gays and abortion or Jesus just wants us to be nice.  If we dare, we can read the Gospels and see that although Jesus doesn’t talk about politics per se, he does talk about money, power and violence—each of which has an awful lot to do with politics.
            We are human, after all, and apt to screw things up choosing what is in our own self-interest rather than what is in the best interest of all and what benefits us in the short term rather than in the long term.  Also in the world we live in, people of good will can be forced to accept laws and governments that offer a lot of gray area rather than clear rights and wrongs, and they often must choose not between good and bad but between bad and worse.  Yet, when we are lost in the midst of our own confusion over what is right for our society and world, Jesus does offer us some landmarks to guide our way.  Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed reminds us that humanity is at its best when those with the least power are seen as having worth and dignity.  Jesus’ warnings about the accumulation of power and money guide us away from the delusion that profit is the highest good or the fallacy that those with power are inherently superior to those without.  Jesus’ call to share what we have with others is not only a call to private charity but also societal justice; it is a reminder that the earth belongs to God and not to those who claim ownership of it for their own exploitation.  Jesus’ rejection of violence reminds us that even though violence may be necessary, it can never be more than a lesser evil.  Even violence under taken with the best of intentions leaves behind unforeseen negative consequences.  Most of all, Jesus’ declarations that we are to be a part of the “Kingdom of God” mean that our ultimate loyalty must and cannot be to any human government or nation but rather to a spiritual community that transcends the borders of parties and nation-states. 
            No, Jesus did not speak directly to politics, but he did speak about many things that should undergird our approach to politics.  As we celebrate our freedoms as Americans this weekend, let us remember that the demands of following Jesus go even deeper than our patriotism. 
Grace and Peace,